Something Completely Different

My Side of the Story

Eric Idle gives a lighthearted account of the creation of Not the Messiah, whose world premiere was conducted by his cousin Peter Oundjian, music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. Read Maestro Oundjian’s story on page 72 of the November/December issue of Symphony.

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By a strange concatenation of questionable DNA, my cousin Peter Oundjian is the music director of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. He visited us during Eric Idle Exploits Monty Python tour and The Greedy Bastard Tour, my 2000 and 2003 North American tours with John Du Prez, playing and singing silly songs. One night in the euphoria of an after-show bistro, emboldened by a cunningly priced Chianti, Peter suggested we do a show together. Orchestras were hurting financially, he said, and many were in danger of disappearing altogether. The young were not going to Classical Concerts and costs were rising steeply, but if we did something silly together we might attract young people into the Concert Hall, show them that they can have fun there, and we might even help Orchestras financially. Unused to such altruism in showbiz, I pondered his suggestion.

When Monty Python was inducted into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame in 2001, in my acceptance speech on behalf of the other Pythons I said I had never really wanted to be in Monty Python, I had always wanted to be…a lumberjack! And on marched a troupe of twenty Mounties led by John Du Prez to sing “The Lumberjack Song” with John Mauceri leading the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. The audience went crazy. So this much we had learned: It was fun performing with a large orchestra, but how would we fill an entire evening?

We toyed with A Monty Python Christmas Singalong in memory of our late pal George Harrison to benefit The Material World Foundation, figuring that if people gathered together for carols or a singalong Messiah then they might well enjoy singing rude songs for a good cause. The Pythons gladly gave their consent to this, but our lives changed suddenly when Spamalot opened on Broadway in March 2005 and was successful beyond anything we could possibly have imagined. By the time a touring company opened in Toronto, my cousin Peter was even keener we should do something together. After all, we were now commercial! But what on earth should it be?

I have always been a fan of The Messiah. If The Messiah is an oratorio based on the story of Jesus, might it be possible to do an oratorio Not The Messiah based on the story of Brian? John liked the idea and Peter was keen, but would the Pythons approve of us adapting Monty Python’s Life of Brian in this way? Fortunately, when I called they said yes, and I didn’t have to use any of the compromising tapes and blackmail photographs that I have been compiling all these years.

I wrote a libretto, which I turned loose on the fertile brain of John Du Prez, who for several months composed in France and in Ireland, visiting Handel’s statue in Dublin for inspiration and Handel’s home in London to admire his collection of wigs. (He had a whole wig room! Bigger even than Dolly Parton’s.) When I listened to his CD of work in progress I was completely bowled over. The music was inspirational. From the opening menacing Shostakovich themes, through his exquisite Mozart melodies to Gilbert and Sullivan, John had created an eclectic score whose style he referred to as iPod Shuffle. He had recognized that this extraordinary device has changed our listening habits. There is no longer musical apartheid amongst the various genres of jazz, classical, and popular. Thanks to the random shuffle feature, we are accustomed to hearing a bit of Beethoven followed by a bit of Beatles, followed by a bit of Basie. Now all music is simply just that: music.

Not The Messiah (He’s a Very Naughty Boy) opened to a rapturous reception in Toronto on June 1, 2007. With the magnificent Toronto Symphony Orchestra, the brilliant Mendelssohn Choir, three real opera singers, four bagpipers, and three organs—one mighty organ, one tiny one, and a mouth organ—it was my first experience of Choral Sex. We were greeted with gales of laughter, great rounds of applause, and seemingly endless curtain calls.

The three nights in Canada flew by, but fortunately Peter had booked us into the Caramoor Festival for our U.S. premiere with two more performances in upstate New York, this time with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s and the Collegiate Chorale. We gave two packed back-to-back concerts in idyllic surroundings at this outdoor festival in a huge tent at the bottom of Martha Stewart’s garden. Personally, I have not been so excited in a tent since I left the Boy Scouts…

Fortunately American audiences were just as tickled by Not The Messiah as the Canadians, and soon we were heading for Australia and New Zealand. We sold out the Sydney Opera House for two nights—not a bad little hall—and people said it was great. What? You heard it was crap? No, no. It was a triumph. Honest. At the end the audience stood up and left.